War on Drug Smuggling Destructive and Senseless

War on Drug Smuggling Destructive and Senseless
Posted by FoM on September 10, 2000 at 07:21:43 PT
By Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen
Source: Ottawa Citizen
A former U.S. drug warrior says the billions spent battling traffickers should go toward treatment for addicts and community development. When retired Lt.-Cmdr. Sylvester Salcedo decided to protest the American War on Drugs, he wasn't quite sure how to go about it. No American veteran of the fight against drugs had ever before done what Mr. Salcedo wanted to do. So, taking his lead from veterans of the Vietnam War who protested by returning their medals, Mr. Salcedo last November dropped his navy Achievement Medal into a FedEx envelope and mailed it to U.S. President Bill Clinton. 
It would have been a serious statement from any former military officer. From this particular officer, it was a searing declaration. Mr. Salcedo is legally barred from talking about the details of his work with the navy, but it's safe to say he was a front-line officer in the War on Drugs. From 1996 to 1999, he was a commander in Joint Task Force Six, a military unit that provides intelligence specialists to U.S. law enforcement agencies. Working with the FBI, the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency), U.S. Customs and various police departments, Mr. Salcedo helped law enforcers penetrate drug trafficking rings and money-laundering schemes. The navy awarded him its Achievement Medal, with a citation honouring him for having put together an "immensely successful military/civilian intelligence analysis team." Talking about his protest in a New York coffee shop, Mr. Salcedo is animated and earnest. Though 43, he looks a decade younger. With his clipped haircut and clean-cut looks, he could be a recruiter trying to convince high-school kids to sign up. His message, however, isn't one the U.S. government would want in high schools or anywhere else. The former drug warrior says it's impossible to stop drugs from moving across borders. The billions of dollars spent on that effort are wasted, he says, and should go toward treatment for addicts and community development. The status quo is, as he put it in his letter to Mr. Clinton, "destructive" and "senseless." Everything Mr. Salcedo says flies in the face of governmental claims. Officially, law enforcers are winning major victories in the War on Drugs. A few months ago, the U.S. government trumpeted the success of Operation Conquistador, a year-long investigation in the Caribbean and Central and South America that ended with 2,331 arrests and the seizure of 5,000 kilograms of cocaine and 362 tonnes of marijuana. Anti-drug enforcers were also quite excited by Operation Millennium, which netted scores of traffickers late in 1999. These sorts of spectacular busts gave the U.S. State Department's most recent report on anti-drug efforts a bubbly optimism. "The drug trade had little to celebrate at the end of the 20th century," it begins. But these reports fail to mention something crucial, something that the media also fail to ask when headline-grabbing busts are made. Just what is the effect of these operations on the total flow of drugs? Does interdiction reduce drug abuse by cutting drug supplies, as it is intended to do? Does it actually make drugs scarcer on the streets of the United States, Canada and other consumer nations? A State Department official -- who, in accordance with department policy, cannot be named -- said that interdiction has a "mixed" record. The U.S. has "made considerable progress in impeding the easier ways drugs can move to the United States," he noted. But "drug smugglers have explored new methods and new routes" and drugs have flowed steadily onto the streets. "The rate of abuse of illicit drugs within the United States has not yet been substantially affected by reductions in drug supply. This we have to recognize." Drug interdiction has consistently failed to produce meaningful results. The General Accounting Office, the research arm of the United States Congress, has been documenting the bleak truth for years. - In 1988, the GAO reported: " narcotics production remains at high levels and supplies available to the United States remain plentiful." - In 1994: "Our review of the Defence Department's detection and monitoring programs concluded that these costly efforts have limited benefits in helping the U.S. government to interdict drugs shipments at a level that would make a difference." - In 1996: "U.S. and Mexican interdiction efforts have had little, if any, impact on the overall flow of drugs through Mexico into the United States." - In 1997: "Over the past 10 years, the United States has spent about $20 billion on international drug control and interdiction efforts to reduce the illegal drug supply  (Despite this) illegal drugs still flood the United States." - In 1998: "Despite U.S. and Mexican counter-narcotics efforts, the flow of illegal drugs into the United States from Mexico has not significantly diminished." - In 1998: "The narcotics threat from Colombia continues and may be growing." A 1999 report followed up: "Despite the efforts of U.S. and Colombian authorities, the illegal narcotics threat from Colombia has grown since we last reported." - Also in 1998: "Although U.S. counter-narcotics efforts have resulted in the arrest of major traffickers, the seizure of large amounts of drugs, and the eradication of illicit drug crops, they have not materially reduced the availability of drugs in the United States." The American government estimates it seizes just 10 to 15 per cent of the heroin that crosses its borders. Perhaps 30 per cent of cocaine is taken. The records of other governments, which devote a fraction of the resources to interdiction that the U.S. does, are generally worse. The United Nations estimates that worldwide seizures of heroin, for example, account for just seven to 10 per cent of the total annual production. The UN has also estimated that it would take the interception of at least 75 per cent of international drug shipments to substantially reduce the profitability of drug trafficking. That's because, as a UN report noted: "Profits on a mere fraction of the drugs successfully trafficked can cover the costs of  lost cargo." It might seem baffling that drug interdiction efforts have failed so consistently and totally. After all, the nation leading the attack on drug smuggling is the U.S., the richest, most powerful, most technologically advanced country in history. And as the GAO noted, American spending on interdiction since Ronald Reagan stoked up the War on Drugs is now into the tens of billions of dollars. The Americans have international co-operation. They have the manpower. They have the mightiest military on the planet. They have satellites that can read a licence plate from space and aircraft equipped with radar that can monitor 520,000 square kilometres in a single sweep. It seems absurd that traffickers can defy that kind of power. And yet, as the GAO has shown, drug smugglers continue to foil the greatest law enforcement effort in history. How they do it seems, next to all the technology and power arrayed against them, hopelessly mundane. The most basic factor is economics. Criminalizing drugs makes it risky to produce and smuggle them. That risk boosts the prices they fetch far beyond their real production and shipping costs. A kilogram of raw opium produced in Pakistan, for example, might go for $90, but it sells for $290,000 in the U.S. There are mind-boggling profits to be made. People from all over the world are happy to risk jail and even death for a shot at those profits. Arrest 10 smugglers and 100 more will take their place. So many people are attracted to the profits of drug trafficking, in fact, that law enforcers have never been able to arrest them fast enough to significantly restrict the flow of drugs. There have, however, been instances in which arrests have restricted drug supplies to particular locations. But even in these rare cases, the limited victory of law enforcers' has been self-defeating. The drug trade may be illegal, but it is a trade and economic laws do apply, including the law of supply and demand. Restricting drug supplies doesn't diminish demand, it only leaves demand unsatisfied. Unsatisfied demand causes prices to rise. Rising prices attract new would-be traffickers. New networks are formed and eventually the drugs get through, causing prices to settle back to their old level, or sink even lower. As economists like to say: Demand creates supply. This is one reason Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman has criticized drug prohibition as futile for the last 40 years, and has yet to be proven wrong. Even arresting top drug kingpins cannot change this economic reality. Just about every one of the major drug lords who rose to notoriety in the 1980s and early 1990s is now dead or in prison, yet so many successors have popped up in their place that the demand for drugs continues to be met, and then some. Prices for cocaine and heroin in the U.S., for example, are at near-record lows (see chart). If knocking out traffickers is all but impossible, spotting and intercepting their drug shipments is the very definition of futility. Geography alone makes interdiction a Sisyphean task: More than three-quarters of South America is covered with river drainage basins that make splendid transportation routes, and most of that is blanketed with jungle. Drugs coming out of Colombia alone can leave by air, water or land via 14,300 kilometres of navigable rivers, 10 seaports, 1,120 known airports, two oceans and five neighbouring countries. On the receiving end, there are tens of thousands of land and sea borders -- the U.S. alone has more than 15,000 kilometres of land and sea border. Monitoring the world is not like putting a video camera on a street corner, no matter what technology is available. An even more daunting factor is cross-border traffic, which is growing rapidly as globalization spurs world trade. Mr. Salcedo gestures toward New York harbour. "Just imagine one of these roll-on, roll-off ships with the containers. The average one that pulls into New York here, I think the average large one carries about 2,000 to 3,000 of those containers. And the bad guys only have to hide the drugs in one of them." As journalist Mike Gray noted in his book, Drug Crazy, each one of those shipping containers can hold a huge quantity of drugs. Enough cocaine to supply the U.S. for a year can fit in 13 containers. A year's supply of heroin could be shipped in just one. The total number of shipping containers that entered the U.S. in 1999: 16 million. Then there is the river of cars and trucks crossing American borders. About 135 million trucks, cars, trains and buses entered the U.S. in 1999. Enough cocaine to satisfy American demand for a year can be shipped in 20 transports. A hundred pounds (45 kilograms) of cocaine -- a major supply of the drug worth millions of dollars -- can fit in the trunk of a Volvo. And this is to say nothing of air traffic. In 1999, 900,000 airplanes legally entered the U.S., carrying 75 million passengers and crew members. Not only are those numbers daunting, screening just one flight is a difficult proposition. "Look at Kennedy Airport," Mr. Salcedo says. "Everybody knows there's an Avianca flight that arrives at Kennedy (from Colombia). You can even specifically target that Avianca flight alone and there's no way you can stop (smuggling). You'll have swallowers, you'll have the guys in the food services, you'll have the pilots themselves, you'll have any number of methods." That human ingenuity, even more than economics or geography or the volume of international traffic, is what makes drug interdiction impossible. Smugglers, like all strongly motivated human beings, are endlessly creative. There are the old standards like false-bottomed suitcases, hollowed-out shoe heels, and drug-lined bras. Diplomatic bags are another favourite for the well-connected smuggler. Door panels on cars can hold many kilograms of drugs; so can bumpers when the Styrofoam inside is removed. Last year, a Mexican man was caught trying to get into the U.S. by paddling up the Pacific Coast on a surfboard that had been hollowed out and stuffed with marijuana. A basic tactic of large-scale smugglers is to put drugs in exports that are too time-consuming or difficult to search. Refrigerated foods are a favourite since checking them thoroughly risks spoiling the food. Fresh flowers -- a major Colombian industry -- are also good cover since delay in getting them to market means they will wilt. Major traffickers operate their own canneries, where they pack drugs in cans labelled as chili or coffee or other common goods. Combined with the difficulty in checking these sorts of goods, the sheer volume of legal imports to the U.S., Canada and Europe makes it unlikely that these shipments will be rooted out with random checks. The huge profits involved make virtually all methods cost-effective. Ships laden with drugs are sent around the world, from harbour to harbour, to disguise their origins and cut the chance of inspection on arrival to nearly zero. Giant passenger jets such as the 727 fly cocaine by the tonne directly from jungle airstrips in Colombia to the U.S. Gas trucks and transports have false bottoms installed and ships have false hulls welded into place. A few years ago, Colombian traffickers were discovered to be in negotiations with the Russian mafia to buy a surplus Soviet submarine. Just last week, Colombian police discovered a half-built submarine, capable of hauling 180 tonnes of cocaine. "Go-fast" boats are also widely used. These are small, extremely fast, ocean-going boats whose size and speed make them difficult to detect and just as hard to catch. Similar boats were popular among booze smugglers during Prohibition. Cocaine is particularly open to creative smuggling since the powder can easily be turned into a solid or liquid. As a liquid, it can be dyed to look like a soft drink or mouthwash. It can be soaked into clothing. As a solid, cocaine can be shaped into ashtrays or tourist knick-knacks. In 1992, U.S. agents seized dog kennels that could be ground down, treated with chemicals and turned into cocaine. Cocaine in these novel forms can still be detected by sniffer dogs or chemical tests. To overcome these limitations, Colombian traffickers recently learned to add charcoal and other substances to cocaine, rendering it odourless and non-reactive to chemical tests. Of course, smugglers also use their own bodies, or those of employees, or even animals. Rectums and vaginas continue to be depositories of secrets, as they have been since ancient times. The "swallowers" Mr. Salcedo refers to are travellers who swallow condoms stuffed with heroin or cocaine, expelling them with the aid of a laxative at their destination -- if the bags don't burst beforehand and kill them. Smugglers have even surgically implanted packs of drugs into their buttocks. In a particularly gruesome effort, traffickers put 70 kilograms of cocaine into condoms and stuffed these into 200 boa constrictors, stitching their anuses shut to ensure the drugs weren't expelled; the scheme was discovered when most of the snakes died. The discovery of the snakes, like most searches that trip up major smugglers, was a fluke. Big, headline-grabbing drug busts are almost always the result of inside information -- often from smugglers out to eliminate a competitor. Spotting drugs with random searches, Mr. Salcedo says, is "near impossible." The veteran intelligence officer is adamant that "there's no way you can ever stop (drugs) by interdicting at the border. It sounds great on TV: 'bring out the army, bring out the air force, we'll stop them at the border, we have to protect our children from this scourge,' and all the rest of that. But from a practical point of view, everybody knows it can't be done." Robert White, formerly an American ambassador in Latin America and now president of the Centre for International Policy in Washington, D.C., agrees. "No one I know in the United States government, except perhaps (American "drug czar") Barry McCaffrey, believes you can interdict drugs." Actually, even Mr. McCaffrey has expressed doubts. At least, he did before he became drug czar and took the lead in the multi-billion-dollar effort to interdict drugs. In 1995, when he was the American general with responsibility for military activity in South America, Barry McCaffrey told Congress, "As long as there is a national demand, someone will find a way to satisfy it." Still, the U.S. is resolutely committed to drug interdiction. The State Department official argues that his government has made "progress in the capabilities that we can bring to try and control the supply of illicit drugs by reducing their production and movement. You have not yet seen that show its results in the form of a substantial, documentable reduction in drug supply over a long term. But I think that the elements are there by which that can be done." Coupled with demand reduction programs, the U.S. government believes, drug interdiction and other supply control methods will soon begin to choke the flow of drugs. But that combination of demand reduction programs (anti-drug education, treatment, and the like) with supply controls is what the U.S. has been doing to some degree for at least three decades, and intensively for almost 20 years. With globalization swelling the flow of goods and people moving across borders, drug interdiction is rapidly getting even more difficult. Whether the consistent failure of drug interdiction can ever be turned around is highly doubtful. Some things, however, are certain. Drug interdiction has produced, and will continue to produce, several major effects. They're just not the effects anyone wants. For one, continued interdiction will make organized crime smarter and more dangerous. "Successful law enforcement actions," says a 1999 report by the U.S. State Department, "have  served to some degree as a form of natural selection, winnowing out the less-efficient organizations and leaving the most resourceful ones to dominate the field." Among the characteristics that separate "resourceful" criminal gangs from those that are not is ruthlessness: Law enforcement itself is one reason why modern drug-trafficking cartels have, over the last several decades, gotten progressively more violent and vicious. In the 1980s, police marvelled at the ruthlessness of Colombian cartels. In the 1990s, the Russian mafia were considered still more cold-blooded. Now Albanian gangs are said to be even more frightening than the Russians. In this mad progression, the old Italian-American mafia has become as obsolete as a Tommy gun. Modern traffickers are, in the words of a State Department report, "well-organized, adaptable, ruthless and (have) access to wealth on a scale without historical precedent." These survivors of the Darwinian pressure from law enforcement, the GAO reported in 1997, "quickly adapt to new U.S. drug control efforts. As success is achieved in one area, the drug-trafficking organizations change tactics, thwarting U.S. efforts." Changing tactics often includes changing smuggling routes, which spreads the corruption and violence. In the 1980s, when Don Johnson and his pastel suits were a hit on Miami Vice, the primary cocaine trafficking route was Colombia to Florida via the Caribbean. Ronald Reagan ordered enforcement agencies to focus their efforts on the region and took great pride when the torrent of drugs slowed. But that didn't cut the net flow of drugs. It merely changed the point of entry. Mexico became the smugglers' route of choice. Today, 60 per cent or more of the cocaine coming into the U.S. travels via Central America and Mexico. Not surprisingly, that has turned Mexico into a battleground for competing cartels. The traffickers, who have become "increasingly resourceful in corrupting  institutions," according to the GAO, have also saturated Mexico with bribery. As always, the smugglers' routes and methods continue to change. In the last year or two, there has been increasing drug traffic through the myriad Caribbean routes, inflicting growing violence and corruption on Haiti and other poor countries that happen to lie along those routes. One might ask why, if the fight against drug-smuggling is both futile and destructive, it continues. Sylvester Salcedo asked himself that question last year when the U.S. government first announced it was giving $1.3 billion U.S. to Colombia, mainly for military hardware to try, once again, to interdict and suppress drugs. Mr. Salcedo is certain the aid will fail, and just as certain the money would be better spent in countless other ways. That's when he decided to return his medal. What worried Mr. Salcedo most was the reaction of his former intelligence officers in the navy. He didn't want them to think he was betraying them. So he e-mailed them, describing his plans to go public. He was overwhelmed with the response. None of his former colleagues took offence. "In fact," Mr. Salcedo says with satisfaction, "a lot of them said, 'We really agree with you, that what we're doing here is really senseless, a waste of time.' " From this experience came Veterans for More Effective Drug Strategies (, a group founded by Mr. Salcedo and others, as he says, "to return the drug problem to the domain of the medical profession." A letter from the group protesting the escalation of American anti-drug efforts in Colombia was quickly signed by 75 former American servicemen, including 38 officers up to the rank of colonel. It's a modest start, but now, if veterans of the war on drugs grow tired of the futility and waste and want to speak out, they'll know exactly how to go about it. Losing the War on Drugs Is the War on Drugs causing more harm than drug abuse itself? The Citizen's Dan Gardner spent five months researching this question, travelling to Colombia, Mexico and the United States. You can read this series at: Dan Gardner is a Citizen Editorial Writer Published: September 10, 2000Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)Copyright: 2000 The Ottawa CitizenContact: letters Address: 1101 Baxter Rd.,Ottawa, Ontario, K2C 3M4Fax: 613-596-8522Website: Articles:Nixon Launched The 30 Years' War as Election Issue Borders Don't Stop Illegal Drugs Trade Rots Away Mexican Society Long As There Is Demand, There Will Be Supply The War On Drugs Has Failed 
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Comment #1 posted by Ethan R on September 10, 2000 at 09:34:55 PT:
Sylvester Salcedo is a True American Hero
I had the honor of meeting Sylvester Salcedo in NYC in March. It would be hard to imagine a more compelling person to point out the futility of the War on Drugs. All success to his efforts!
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